(Christine with the Daroga, Raoul at Perros-Guirrec, Raoul with Mama Valerius)
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I had the inspiration a while ago that Lars Hanson would have been the ideal casting for Leroux-Raoul in the silent era: he can play fair, delicate and conflicted, but also hot-headed and impulsive.
So I was amused to come across a couple of stills from the Mauritz Stiller "Erotikon" (1920)-- a film which apparently deals with Eros rather than erotica -- which, when taken out of context, could easily appear as shots from a 1920s "Phantom of the Opera" movie with an authentically Swedish Christine!
Raoul is carried away by Christine's singing as she accompanies herself at the piano (Preben Wells and Irene in "Erotikon")
Raoul and Philippe quarrel over the girl (Preben warns Professor Leo in "Erotikon")
Edit (for my records) — a nineteenth-century Raoul:
Unfortunately, the film itself was a bit of a disappointment. The novice Hitchcock is clearly in love with special effects and the manufacture of suspense, but he resorts to devices that are all too obviously manufactured in his endeavour to throw suspicion on the eponymous lodger. It's pretty difficult to poke a fire in such a way as to poise the poker threateningly above the head of the girl on the other side of the table, even if she is bending down to retrieve a lost chess-piece; and it's pretty crude to have your suspect pretend to stab the heroine with a table-knife. And when the murderer is known to have a fixation of blonde girls, it's not exactly subtle to have your suspect talk not about the beauty, but the colour of the heroine's hair — lack of subtlety is the main theme here, culminating in the lodger's 'crucifixion', when a trickle of blood oozes from his mouth in what is doubtless intended to be a deeply significant shot. The story is a potentially good one, but the execution is too often ham-handed... not aided, I'm afraid, by some poor acting.
It does annoy me when people dismiss bad acting in silents with airy phrases such as 'you had to overact to get the story across without dialogue' and 'that style of acting was normal in those days'; any decent silent-era actor can get his message across just by the way he moves and reacts without making eyes at the camera or gesturing around, and wooden acting is wooden acting in any era. Top silent actors were often better than talkie actors because they didn't have the crutch of dialogue to distract from awkward body language; if it looked unnatural, everyone would notice.
Ivor Novello had no pretensions to be a great screen actor — he was originally selected for film roles simply on the grounds of his striking good looks, and cheerfully admitted it — but this is far from being his best performance. He gives every indication of reacting to off-screen directions as to what expression to pull next, rather than communicating clearly with the audience; some scenes are far more successful than others. Malcolm Keen in the role of his rival Joe, the detective, is little better, and the mysterious "June" (perhaps a contemporary society celebrity with whom the audience was expected to be on first-name terms?) acts them both off the screen, as do the character actors who play her parents.
The film has good moments, generally when a touch of humour is allowed to break up the would-be intensity or when the actors relax enough to give more natural performances, but it left me feeling nakedly manipulated. There are flashes of talent, but all concerned are trying too obviously and too hard; I'm not sure I could honestly recommend it, save for curiosity's sake.
No sooner had it finally finished raining than the larder flooded; with hindsight, I imagine that the pipework above the shelf had probably been leaking for some time, but it wasn't until water started dripping down into the fruit rack that it got noticed. The entire shelf (which had to be sawn out of its supports in order to reach the piping) was sodden and slimy with mould, and is now reposing in its component planks outside the back steps waiting for somebody to scrub it down with a hard brush...
The plumber was somewhat taken aback by our highly esoteric pipes. Apparently, we have lead, copper and steel (rusting of the latter having caused the problem) pipework of all different diameters running along the same wall; just to add to the confusion, thanks to modern engineering we have now acquired some 'metric copper' to add to the mix. Naturally, the joints between all these mutually incompatible systems are completely botched together in a perfect plumber's nightmare! I imagine it's a complete cross-section of waterwork through the ages since mains water was first fitted...
At any rate, the flood has been quelled for the moment, although the rest of the steel pipes are in an almost equally parlous condition, especially where they run out through the wall. I wonder whoever thought that using ferrous metal for water-pipes was a good idea? Possibly the same person who thought that cast-iron was a suitable material for our gutters...
The floor is all soaked, of course, and will have to dry out; a long business at this time of the year. Stacks of stored food have been evacuated all over the place, to various unused locations — thanks to the winter, it is fortunately not too much of a problem, as almost all the rooms are fairly cold this time of year. We are starting to run out of floor space, though... and all the jams that used to live on that specific shelf now have illegible labels!
Meanwhile the days are ticking on towards December, and it's time to think of the store-cupboard. Today was dominated by Christmas cake and puddings, occupying all cooking facilities to the extent that we were forced to dine on grilled sausages and chutney... plus some small beetroot that hitched a lift in the boiling water around the pudding-basins. My own idea, though I say it myself, and one that considerably livened up the meal. After all, when one has so much boiling water on the go for so many hours, why not make use of it for other purposes?
I don't remember ever having so much trouble with kitchens steaming up before. Condensation on the windows is one thing, but today — as the puddings boiled on and on for hours and hours — it got to the stage where drips were falling from the ceiling, and the washing hanging from the airer was getting wetter rather than drier. We ended up with all doors and windows flung open to the outside air in sheer self-defence to try to ease off the temperature gradient. Incredibly, it was still 60F indoors... but the windows cleared up and the walls were no longer running with water, which was the aim of the exercise.
All over now, thank goodness, at least for another year... or until it's time to boil the puddings again for eating!
I can't help wondering if this was due to the comparative lack of silent material in their career, since the teaming didn't really take place until 1927, and their 'talkies' are at least as numerous and well known... or due to a comparative lack of sophistication giving little scope for analysis. I know that it's snide of me, and I know that my Keaton-loyalties are probably clouding my judgement (when I was a child I absolutely adored Laurel & Hardy at the annual film shows, long before I ever even heard of Buster Keaton), but when the presenter sums up the quintessential L&H technique as being one of escalating chaos and the use of crowds 'as props' — the demolition derby, the giant bun-fight, and in this case a climax consisting of mass trouser-tearing-off — I can't help comparing it to Keaton's brand of basically intelligence-based, elegant misdirection comedy and thinking "Is this it? Is this all there is?" I mean, we're talking about the proverbial audience-of-twelve-year-olds appeal here: people for whom the biggest laugh in the world is a French horn getting run over by a steamroller and called 'flat', or as many men as possible getting hit in the face by a custard pie. If anyone was going to thrive and go from strength to strength in the talkie sophistication of the 1930s, who would have thought it would have been the comedians dealing in basic slapstick?
But as Merton points out, a comedy duo have a built-in advantage when it comes to dealing in dialogue — it's natural and indeed expected for them to talk to each other. Meanwhile, Keaton's humour was so very much 'silent' — so visual and full of movement — that perhaps it was at a basic disadvantage, like all very highly-adapted organisms, when it came to thriving in a very different environment. After all, Keaton's reaction to the potential of dialogue in film comedy (which as a technical innovator, he was all in favour of) was that you could use it to set up the gags in a more natural-seeming way... then get your actual laugh in the 'normal' fashion. Verbal jokes didn't come into his vision at all.
It was interesting to note that in fact, in the extract from "The Music Box" (1932) shown, Stan and Ollie were proceeding along just those lines: the humour in the set-up was entirely visual, and the dialogue was almost entirely unrelated to the laughs. The scene shown, as Ollie backs into a pond up a final flight of shallow steps, could have been used in a silent film with the addition of maybe one title card (which, in a true silent could probably have been avoided)... but then, as this is reputedly a remake of an earlier short, "Hats Off", perhaps it was...
Given the emphasis on composing and musical accompaniment in the earlier part of this broadcast, it is unfortunate that I felt that the ultimate screening of "You're Darn Tootin'" suffered from its soundtrack. I haven't got on that well in the past with Neil Brand's silent-film orchestrations — which is a pity, because I greatly enjoy and admire his improvisation work at the piano — but in this case I felt that there had simply been a wrong choice made based on the visual material. The film centres around the musical efforts of two hack musicians, and naturally the relevant instruments have to be shown playing when the characters play on screen. This element is all beautifully synchronised; the problem comes in the (increasingly lengthy) moments when no-one on screen is playing. Brand has made the decision to depict this by silence on the soundtrack, and I just don't think it works. A lot of the laughs in the early scenes occur during just such crises, when people aren't playing when they should be, and it feels completely unnatural to have long sections of complete silence during moments when the 'mood' (provided in a silent film by the accompaniment) is supposed to be moving forward.
When the sound-track comes to a total halt in a normal accompaniment, it is usually in response to a terrible shock or tense anticipation on the screen — it's a very powerful tool when used very sparingly. Using it in a laboriously literal interpretation of when Stan and Ollie are seen to play and when they are seen to stop feels completely inappropriate, especially when it lasts more than half a second or so and we see the band leader pick up his baton and storm over... all in complete silence, rather than the underlying emotional cues we'd normally be getting. These scenes need a background accompaniment under the actual on-screen playing: by all means let us hear it start and stop, but don't start and stop everything else in synchronisation as well. In this context it just doesn't make musical sense.
To be fair, I didn't much care for the film itself, as may have been apparent from my earlier comments. It's all right... but I didn't find it terribly funny. This is slapstick stuff, with people (or music-stands) falling over, tumbling down manholes and hitting each other, and culminates in one of Laurel's favourite 'descent into mayhem'-style set-ups, as passers-by get involved in one of Stan and Ollie's quarrels and the whole screen fills with men punching each other in the stomach, stamping on each other's toes, and debagging one another on a grand scale. Either you love this sort of thing or you don't, and I don't, really — I infinitely prefer Keaton's Heath-Robinson humour.
I did enjoy the surprise ending, though.
My mind cleared instantly. Keaton or Conrad? Given that choice, my priorities turned out to be absolutely unquestioning: Keaton without a qualm, every single time. Considering the amount of time I'd spent dithering, it was almost funny.
The really silly thing is that I'd actually already seen the TV programme in question at a special sneak preview session before its original BBC4 transmission and it doesn't in any case tell me anything I don't already know, or show any footage I haven't already encountered. I just can't resist Buster Keaton under any circumstances; I suppose that's what they call addiction, although it feels more like religion...
A contributory factor was that the Conrad on Film season has been somewhat mixed to date, at least from my point of view. I'd already narrowed my planned viewing down to a handful of the pictures on offer, for one reason or another (my main interest is in the early film era itself, rather than in Conrad's work), and "Laughing Anne" had been one of the few survivors. (I was interested to see what Herbert Wilcox plus Margaret Lockwood would produce, and the plotline sounded my style.)
So far I've seen two of the three "Victory" adaptations in the season — the silent and very early sound versions — and the silent "Lord Jim".
The "Victories" were both pretty mediocre, verging on bad. The plum part in that plot seems to be the villain Ricardo, who comes across as the most lively and amusing character: the main reason why I watched the silent version was to see the famous Lon Chaney in the part, and he doesn't disappoint. Alas, that is more than can be said for Richard Arlen, the reason why I watched the sound version; he was terribly wooden in the leading man role of Axel Heyst. And after he'd been so good as a silent actor in "The Four Feathers" and "Beggars of Life", too. After watching this film, I frankly assumed that his career must have fallen casualty to the coming of sound — since although he has a perfectly good voice here, he seems unable to act with it — and was quite surprised to find that he went on getting parts for many years afterwards; maybe he was just having a bad day here. It's not a rewarding character to play.
The 1925 "Lord Jim", on the other hand, was unexpectedly excellent. Enough to make me go and read the book, which I was not at all tempted to do after watching a double-bill of "Victories"!
It has to be said that this film gets better as it goes along. There's nothing wrong as such with the beginning, but it's a bit pedestrian somehow. But comparing it with the original novel, I found it all in all a very good adaptation, and generally a better piece of storytelling than Conrad's long framing passages and non-chronological plotline allow: I'm not clear if the author was trying to rack up suspense, indulge in philosophical exploration or simply to be clever, but I actually felt that the film — with the benefit of almost no words at all, being silent — got to the heart of the character much more accurately and clearly than the book had. And as a piece of compression it's actually very clever.
The most significant example is the combining of the two villainous captains into the same character, thus adding extra personal impact on Jim when he encounters the pirates in addition to shortening the cast list and cutting back on exposition; but the depiction of Jim's wanderings after his disgrace is very well done by piecing together various separate incidents mentioned in Conrad's meandering account of that era, and making them into a coherent chain driving the hero back to seek help from the sympathetic merchant (again, a conflation of several characters making passing appearances in the book). The trial scene is also conveyed with remarkable skill, given the constraints posed by title cards and the imperative not to have too many of them.
But basically I strongly suspect that I liked it much better because I could identify with the central character in the plot. My masochistic streak coming out again, I suppose — but expiation, honour and heroic self-sacrifice were always my thing. In the end scene, where I have a feeling we are supposed to be willing Jim to yield to Jewel's pleas and escape fulfilling his word to his benefactor, I was sitting there thinking 'isn't that just like a woman? She simply doesn't understand, does she? Don't listen to her...'
And of course he doesn't.
My only complaint about this scene would be that they really shouldn't have staged it so that a dying man has to stagger back across a long bridge; Jewel should have run to meet him, for plausibility's sake...